Cold weather equals more requests for help

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cold weather equals more requests for help

People wait outside the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph, 2715 W. Harrison, on Feb. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Franciscan Father Jim Hoffman, who managed the shelter from 1987 to 1998, visits with Steve Samar while he and other patrons eat a hot meal in the kitchen on Jan. 22. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

As the Chicago area struggles through one of the coldest and snowiest winters in memory, Catholic agencies that serve people who are poor or homeless are working overtime to try to keep them safe and warm.

And they have a message for their donors and supporters: It’s never too late to help, especially with donations of warm clothing (men’s coats and shoes are always in short supply) and cash, which can be used to meet whatever needs that arise.

John Ryan, chief of staff for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said the agency’s mobile outreach program saw a “huge” increase in calls in January, mostly with requests to help homeless people get to shelters.

The mobile outreach program works in conjunction with the City of Chicago’s 311 call center, and typically fields calls from people who see homeless individuals trying to take shelter in areas like doorways and waiting rooms and want to get them help. Mobile outreach workers also perform wellness checks and deliver emergency boxes of food.

The program received 5,100 calls for service in January, up from between 3,000 and 4,000 in a typical month, Ryan said, and extra crews were scheduled on the coldest days.

“What amazes me is our workers still wanted to come in,” Ryan said. “There were a few days when we had essential services only open, the weather was horrendous, and they didn’t miss a beat.”

Meanwhile, the agency’s emergency services program, which includes food pantries, clothes closets and some emergency funding for families, saw requests nearly double. Despite the extra demand, the agency was able to keep its pantries stocked, Ryan said.

Part of that is because donations have increased during the harsh weather, although not as much as demand.

“The cold weather has pulled on our donors’ heartstrings,” he said.

Christene Dykes-Sorrells, director of the emergency assistance program, said that she has been surprised that people are coming for assistance despite the cold, even when they don’t have adequate clothing for the weather.

“It’s so bad out here, but our numbers do not drop,” she said, adding that it had been difficult to maintain stocks of clothing because people are wearing so many layers at one time.

She said she can tell how cold people are because of the lengths they will go to keep warm.

“We have men, they’ll take a woman’s coat if they can get it on,” she said. “Normally, they wouldn’t do that.”

Dykes-Sorrells said she tries to use her resources as best she can to help the people in most dire need. Different funding streams have different requirements for recipients, and it’s her agency’s job to figure out how best to help. “We’re trying to make this money stretch the best I can,” she said.

She also tries to help people stretch the assistance they need, offering recipes and tips for using the food available in the pantries and inexpensive staples like beans, rice and pasta.

Cynthia Northington manages the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph Shelter, 2715 W. Harrison St., for Franciscan Outreach, a non-profit that helps homeless people in Chicago. She said that during periods of extreme cold weather — including from Feb. 10-12 this month, when low temperatures hit 8 degrees below zero — the organization is keeping its doors open 24 hours a day.

Guests receive lunch as well as dinner and breakfast, and case workers are available to meet with them during the day. Workers also distributed warm clothing including socks, hats, scarves and gloves.

“It doesn’t put too much of a strain on us because we have a staff here during the day,” Northington said. She does have to bring in kitchen help and some extra supervision, however.

The February cold spell was the third time since Jan. 1 that temperatures dropped to zero or below for prolonged periods this winter. During that spell, all 260 beds were filled, and the shelter pulled out a handful of emergency cots, Northington said.

“We don’t want to turn anyone away,” she said.

When there is absolutely no room left, she said, people seeking shelter are invited to come in and warm up, and the organization tries to find space for them at other area shelters.

Meanwhile, Franciscan Outreach’s Marquard Center, 1645 W. LeMoyne, which has a soup kitchen and laundry facilities for homeless people, also stayed open all day, and outreach workers went to sites where homeless people often congregate to encourage them to go to a shelter to stay safe.


  • catholic charities
  • homelessness
  • franciscan house of mary and joseph

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